Expecting so little, media play it big

The Baltimore Sun

About 800 journalists from an estimated 70 countries will be converging on Annapolis for today's Middle East conference.

While many regard the conference with a jaundiced eye, few appear ready to write off the one-day gathering altogether.

"We're treating this as a major event, giving it at least four pages in Tuesday's edition and possibly more in Wednesday's paper," Amir Mizroch, news editor for The Jerusalem Post, wrote in an e-mail from Jerusalem yesterday. "It's the first meeting of its kind in quite a while, and the fact that Israelis will be in the same room as Syrians and Saudis is important."

"It is a major news event," Saudi journalist Fouzi Asmar, deputy bureau chief for The Riyadh Daily, said yesterday from his Washington office. "But the expectations are very low that anything positive could come from this meeting, unless Mr. Bush would step in and put pressure on Israel."

Although many media organizations have bureaus in nearby Washington, others are flying in correspondents especially for the meeting. The Jerusalem Post, for example, is importing its editor in chief and chief diplomatic correspondent, while The Riyadh Daily is flying in its deputy news editor to join Asmar and another reporter.

Al Jazeera English, the English-language arm of the Qatar-based satellite news network, will be sending a crew of about 10 reporters and technicians, said Will Stebbins, bureau chief for the Americas. He agreed that interest in the conference is high.

"When expectations are lowered, in the way that they have been, there's a sense of pre-empting [diplomats] from blame if anything goes wrong," he said. "There's immense pessimism, certainly in the region - not only among Palestinians, but among Israelis as well."

Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent for Tel Aviv-based Haaretz, will be joined by four colleagues who have flown in from Israel. He cautioned that expectations for the conference must be realistic.

"In the best-case scenario," he said, "this is the beginning of a very lengthy process. In the worst-case scenario, it is just a photo op with no meaning, an empty ceremonial gesture."

Even news media that won't be represented in Annapolis are holding out hope that something of substance could emerge from the conference.

Mahmoud Al Abed, managing editor of The Jordan Times, said his paper did not have enough time to secure visas and other papers necessary to travel to the United States. But it would be fine with him, he said, if a breakthrough occurred without his paper's presence.

"I hope that the views of both sides will get closer together," Al Abed said from his paper's offices in Amman. "We are afraid of their extremists; they are afraid of our extremists. It is not a life."


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